The Circle (Knopf, 2013), by Dave Eggers, is a latter-day version of 1984. A company like Google and Facebook develops technology with which it collects information about everybody everywhere in the world. It manufactures inexpensive but highly effective cameras and places them everywhere. It pressures politicians to wear the cameras around their necks (this is called becoming transparent) so that their behavior is visible to anyone in the world. The result is elimination of political corruption. It places cameras in family homes, around the necks of family members, and thereby eliminates spousal and child abuse. In public places, the cameras eliminate crime.
In the company called The Circle employees are expected to share information about everything they’re doing, and they’re expected to comment on the activities of others in the company—to send them “smiles” as a sign of approval. “Sharing” becomes not merely a voluntary expression but mandatory, a way of life. The main character of this novel, Mae Holland, is criticized by her supervisor early in her work for the company when she goes kayaking alone and doesn’t post about it to the company web site. In this regard “The Circle” is much like Facebook, but while in Facebook one’s sharing of information is entirely voluntary, the Circle requires it.
The Circle describes how the company develops and grows and eventually takes over the world. There isn’t much tension in the narrative. A few people resist the expansion of the Circle, but for the most part it grows without opposition. Therefore the novel lacks tension, suspense, and in the end a degree of interest.
One problem is the main character Mae. She lacks fiber, substance. She graduates from college and goes to work for a utilities company, where she is unhappy. She asks her friend Annie, who has a high-level job in the Circle, to help her find a place there. Once she joins the Circle, she exhibits little will, virtually no awareness or concern about the all-seeing ambitions of the company, and in the end becomes a primary agent of its ubiquity. She becomes the company’s first transparent employee, and then becomes its spokesperson, speaking to the millions of Circle followers as its transparent public face. Her ambition, combined with her narcissistic vacuity, makes her a fairly exasperating and unsympathetic character. Her blindness to the needs of her parents, and her treatment of her former boyfriend, make her unlikeable. But this is part of Eggers’ point, I think. Individualism, privacy, one’s inner life—these all disappear in the Circle. He is worried they will disappear from our contemporary world as well.
One must admire the message in The Circle but not its presentation. One expects some sort of dramatic showdown between the rapidly expanding Circle and a mysterious man who appears periodically, warning Mae of the dangers of the Circle. She never learns his name, even when they have sex, and we know that in some way he is an important figure. When we finally learn who he is, as if we haven’t quite guessed already, it is a letdown. For some inexplicable reason, he believes Mae can put a stop to the Circle if only she will inform her followers of how dangerous it has become. The novel putters to a stop, and the Circle reigns supreme.